- Austin Ward, ESPN Staff Writer
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The final month of the season has arrived, putting the division races under the spotlight and setting the stage for a frantic push for the bids to the conference title game in Indianapolis. Every Wednesday for the rest of the season, we'll sort through the contenders and pretenders to see exactly how things stand in the division races as the picture starts to become clearer.
Away we go.
Front-runner: Ohio State (8-0, 4-0 Big Ten). This race is pretty straightforward, with the Buckeyes at the midway point of their league slate sitting unbeaten with a one-game lead over Wisconsin in the standings with the added benefit of a head-to-head tiebreaker in their pockets. Ohio State might not have impressed many national voters with close wins over the Badgers, Northwestern and Iowa to open league play, but it appears to be getting stronger as the season progresses and completely dominated Penn State to solidify its spot at the top of the division last weekend.
Other contenders: Wisconsin (5-2, 3-1) is the only team in the division with less than two conference losses, and like Ohio State, it's been playing its best football lately as well. But the Badgers are going to need some help down the stretch if they're going to catch the Buckeyes and snag an invitation to Indianapolis, though the next three teams on the Ohio State schedule have combined for just one Big Ten win -- Indiana's victory over Penn State. That victory for the Hoosiers at least keeps them in the conversation for now since they have matchups with both the Badgers and Buckeyes coming up, but they're certainly facing a tall task taking on those teams on the road over consecutive weekends.
Out of the mix: Illinois (3-4, 0-3) had some bright spots outside of league play, but it has been ugly since then as it has dug a deep hole in the division race. Purdue (1-6, 0-3) is still looking for a conference win as well as it has fallen well behind the pace. And while it has played the Buckeyes tough over the last couple years, the Boilermakers clearly aren't catching them at a good time.
Front-runner: Michigan State (7-1, 4-0). The Spartans have played one more time than their two closest competitors, and without dropping a game yet in the league, they're seemingly halfway to a division crown. Michigan State's elite defense has given it the look of a legitimate contender in the Big Ten, and it's hard to argue with the results thus far. But the next couple weeks will determine if the Spartans are truly bound for Indianapolis, because the challengers are knocking on the door and looking for head-to-head victories that could tilt the scales dramatically.
Other contenders: Almost the entire division can continue entertaining thoughts of taking the title, with five of the six teams currently at .500 or better heading into the final month. Michigan (6-1, 2-1) and Nebraska (5-2, 2-1) are closest to the Spartans in the loss column, and those programs are about to start a three-week round-robin that will be crucial in sorting out the jumbled mess at the top of the standings. Iowa (5-3, 2-2) and Minnesota (6-2, 2-2) can't be written out of the script quite yet given surprisingly solid play from both recently, although the Hawkeyes and Gophers would each need some outside assistance to take over the top spot.
See you next year: Free-falling Northwestern (4-4, 0-4) pushed the Buckeyes to the brink, but it couldn't pull off a win with College GameDay on campus -- and hasn't been able to beat anybody else in the Big Ten either. Injuries have done the Wildcats no favors, but they'll spend November simply trying to play spoiler and searching for a way to get bowl eligible.
22hMax Olson and Jake Trotter